tampabay.com

Visions of a mega church

By GAIL HOLLENBECK
Published May 28, 2007


BROOKSVILLE

It's come a long way from its humble beginnings on Russell Street in 1932.

Familiar to passersby as the large white-domed church on Cortez Boulevard, Grace World Outreach Church has grown rapidly in recent years, with a vision that has it on a course to become Hernando County's first evangelical "mega church."

The 30, 000-square-foot Grace Dome sanctuary was completed on the 12-acre campus in 2003 to accommodate the large multiracial, multicultural congregation, bringing the total size of church facilities to 60, 000 square feet.

"There are probably 1, 600 people now who call our church home, " said the Rev. David Garcia, senior pastor.

About 1, 000 people attend the 11 a.m. service on Sunday mornings. A smaller crowd of about 200 attends the earlier service at 8.

"I preach the same message at both services, " Garcia said, "but the first service is a little bit more conservative - just a little bit more. It's quieter. The second service will target more of your 25- to 45-year-olds. The music is much livelier."

With "world outreach" as its middle name, it's no surprise that that's an emphasis of the church. Although the church remains strongly affiliated with the Assemblies of God, a new vision statement that was written after the completion of the dome dictated a change in name. Prior to last year, the church was named Brooksville Assembly of God.

"We just feel like we want to take the church outside the walls of the church, " said Garcia, 56, who has been pastor there since 1988. "We're a very strong missions church. Also, we're drawing people from Orlando, from Tampa, from Homosassa, from Inverness. The name Brooksville really isn't apropos to what we're doing. We're not a Brooksville church. We're a regional church."

Anthony and Michelle Prisciandaro are evidence of the church's draw. The couple has driven from Orlando to attend the church for the past two years.

"I was basically beginning as a Christian and beginning my walk with the Lord, and so was my wife, " Anthony Prisciandaro said. "Pastor Garcia's an awesome teacher and tells it like it is. He doesn't sugarcoat anything; he doesn't do a feel-good message. It's about the truth. He just preaches the word of God, and he knows what he's talking about and he puts it in a way that you can understand."

A local church member, Vonda Pendlebury has been at the church for 19 years "because there is good sound doctrine that's life changing."

Her husband, mother, sister and aunt also attend.

A display of flags and posters from various countries inside the 2, 300-seat domed sanctuary, plus numerous community programs facilitated by the church, are testimony to its vision to reach out with a Christian message.

So are the continuing building programs to keep up with the church's rapid growth and the numerous opportunities for ministry offered to members.

Last month, the church broke ground on a 7, 000-square-foot nursery. Once completed, it will accommodate children from birth through age 4. Like the $3.8-million Grace Dome, it will be debt free.

"Our church is a great, giving church, " Garcia said. "We've been able to build debt free because of that."

Elder John Thornton has been attending the church with his wife, Judy, since 1974, the year the church moved from its second location, on U.S. 98, to its current site.

"It's a giving church, and always has been, " Thornton said. "I remember when there were just 35 of us. God, I guess, has always had his hand on this piece of property. He's blessed us."

Currently, a baptismal is being installed at the front of the sanctuary, as are prayer rooms. Two additional large media screens will soon be installed. There is talk about a fellowship hall with a complete kitchen to complement the existing Family Life Center, which is in the old sanctuary.

And there's likely to be more.

"I've already built buildings in my spirit that I've not told you about, " Garcia told his congregation at a recent service.

Another change with the new vision statement was an increased emphasis on "servant evangelism." A former missionary, Garcia says he has a heart for missions and preaching to the unchurched.

"We're hitting the streets more. That's our emphasis right now, along with sending more missions teams out to other countries, " he said. "We decided to go out in the streets and do a lot of things we would normally do in the church outside the church. We just had Passion in the Park at Hernando Park. We always do a massive Easter play. But we did it outside, and we led people to the Lord.

"We give out free water bottles, free newspapers, we go to hospitals and bless the nurses, we do free car washes. People say, 'Why are you doing this?' We basically tell them, 'To show you the practical love of God.' "

Garcia said he hopes the church will grow even larger.

"Five years from now, I will be the lead pastor of this church, and the church will probably, God willing, have about 2, 500, maybe 3, 000 people."

In his long-range vision for Grace World, Garcia says he will have a live streaming program on the Internet and a multisite church with broadcasts originating in Brooksville.

"I'll have a Grace World Outreach meeting in Homosassa, a meeting in Inverness, a meeting in Tampa, and we'll use multi-screens for that, " Garcia said. "They'll have their own pastor there, but they'll see me on the screen, probably on 10 different sites."

Garcia is quick to point out that the visions are not his alone. While spending 20 to 30 hours per message in Bible study, he relies heavily on the six other pastors on his staff to accomplish the work of the church.

"I've got great leaders over here, " he said. "Each of them is much more qualified than I am. Trust me, I had very little to do with building the dome, very little. I delegate everything."

The glory for all the church's accomplishments, he said, belongs to God.

"I do want to share with you that I'm here by the grace of God. I really would be hard pressed to tell you why God has done all that he has here, " Garcia said.

"Trust me, you will notice an unusual presence of God when you come here. People pull in here and say, 'I don't know why I'm here, don't even want to be here.' And then they find themselves at the altar getting born again and giving their lives to God. To God be all the glory."

By the numbers

1, 000 People who attend the 11 a.m. service on Sundays.

12 Acres of church campus.

60, 000 Square footage of church facilities.

1932 Year the church was founded.